A revelatory work that “opens the nun’s closet doors for the first time,” then scans the contents for all their historical...



From a journalist, healthcare worker, and converted Catholic, a fascinating overview of the garb worn by consecrated Catholic women, with brief histories of the respective orders.

“The habit . . . is a creative and imaginative clothing carefully constructed to impart meanings to its observers,” writes Kuhns, who then considers exactly what those meanings are: Does the habit suppress the individual or erase class distinctions, strip or bestow power, oppress or dignify? However the observer judges, there’s little doubt that this metaphor of the Catholic faith has become a universal cultural icon. It may have originated in the earliest ascetic impulses, suggests Kuhns, later to evolve into a wearable sacramental with unique symbolism: blue for the Immaculate Virgin, black for the abandonment of vanities, red for the Precious Blood, having seven buttons for the seven last words. The habit, clearly, distinguished the wearer as one who had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and as such it was certainly more steadfast a symbol than the pomp of cardinals and popes. Yet as symbol, Kuhns writes, it was variously interpreted, from the humble cloth of a Poor Clare or a Chartreuse to the lavish colors and materials advanced by Hildegard of Bilgen, “reasoning that Christ should be presented with as much beauty as they could offer.” Kuhns embeds into her narrative the way these orders—Gilbertines, Carmelites, Benedictines, Cistercians, and on and on—were attractive for offering women not withdrawal but opportunity: in education and health care, for example, allowing them acts of free will and transformation that have prompted both admiration and disrespect, depending upon the cultural and political climate. The nuns might be praised as heroic “caregivers who responded to the needs of the marginalized in every strata of contemporary society,” for instance, then find themselves scorned if Catholicism happened to be out of synch with prevailing political winds.

A revelatory work that “opens the nun’s closet doors for the first time,” then scans the contents for all their historical and symbolic associations. (Photographs)

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2003

ISBN: 0-385-50588-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2003

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.


Straight talk to blacks and whites about the realities of racism.

In her feisty debut book, Oluo, essayist, blogger, and editor at large at the Establishment magazine, writes from the perspective of a black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman living in a “white supremacist country.” The daughter of a white single mother, brought up in largely white Seattle, she sees race as “one of the most defining forces” in her life. Throughout the book, Oluo responds to questions that she has often been asked, and others that she wishes were asked, about racism “in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.” “Is it really about race?” she is asked by whites who insist that class is a greater source of oppression. “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is the model minority myth?” Her sharp, no-nonsense answers include talking points for both blacks and whites. She explains, for example, “when somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing.” She unpacks the complicated term “intersectionality”: the idea that social justice must consider “a myriad of identities—our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more—that inform our experiences in life.” She asks whites to realize that when people of color talk about systemic racism, “they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you” and are asking that they be heard. After devoting most of the book to talking, Oluo finishes with a chapter on action and its urgency. Action includes pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments; boycotting businesses that exploit people of color; contributing money to social justice organizations; and, most of all, voting for candidates who make “diversity, inclusion and racial justice a priority.”

A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-58005-677-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Seal Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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